When the Polish Plumber Fails: Group Rescues Stranded Immigrants

By Jan Puhl

Hundreds of thousands of Poleshave traveled to Britainin recent years hoping to make their fortunes. But some struggle to get by and land on the street. A homeless aid group from their own country is searching for them in parks and alleys, helping to send them back home.

Janusz Smura searches for his homeless countrymen in East London. Zoom
Andrew Testa/Panos for DER SPIEGEL

Janusz Smura searches for his homeless countrymen in East London.

One by one, the lights go out in the Swiss Re Tower, the conical building jokingly known among Londoners as the "Gherkin." The insurance agents and lawyers, ties loosened, stand around in front of upscale pubs in the City of London, London's financial district, pints in hand. Janusz Smura weaves his way through the tipsy crowd, where the wafting smell of alcohol is at once tantalizing and frightening.

Smura turns right into Rose Alley, which despite its appealing name is narrow, pitch black and full of garbage, not even wide enough for two people to walk side by side. If the bankers on the main street come here at all, it's only to urinate, as the alley's smell attests. Smura peers behind a dumpster. "No one there, just a bed," he says, indicating a couple pieces of cardboard spread out on the ground.

A bit further along, in a small park with a fountain in Bishopsgate, Smura ducks behind the bushes and once again finds cardboard spread all around. Here, a figure in a sleeping bag sits up, mumbles a few words of greeting in Polish, then sinks back to the ground.

Smura is well known among the City of London's homeless, since he patrols the area twice each day, checking all the nooks and crannies between the office towers. He's a social worker sent to London by Barka, a Polish organization that helps the homeless. His job is to seek out Eastern Europeans who have fallen on hard times and try to convince them to leave the streets and alcohol abuse, and go back home to Poland or Lithuania or Hungary. He's here to sweep up the flotsam of globalization.

Too Proud to Return Home

When the European Union expanded its borders eastward in 2004, over half a million people came to Great Britain from Poland alone, hoping to start a new life and make quick money. They were welcomed as "Polish plumbers" -- cheap laborers -- and easily found work.

But not all of them found success. Many lost their footing, then their jobs and their apartments. No one knows precisely how many Eastern Europeans are stuck here in the limbo of Great Britain's streets, but experts estimate that up to one-fifth of London's homeless come from Poland. "They don't dare go back home, having failed like this," Smura explains.

It often takes weeks, he says, before he can convince his clients to get back in touch with family back home and make the return journey. "The most important thing is to establish trust," he says.

The Polish social worker knows well how to deal with alcoholics, since he once counted among their ranks. It was, in fact, Barka social workers who picked Smura himself up off the streets of Poznan, Poland, and convinced him to get sober. Now he does the same for others. "I can use my own experience to help other people," Smura says, his grin revealing ruined teeth.

Smura's boss Ewa Sadowska, 29, is a woman with short, platinum blonde hair. She lives together with former homeless people in a small house that serves as Barka's London headquarters, in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Her office is decorated with pictures of Pope John Paul II.

Swallowed by the City

Barka has had between five and 10 social workers active in London since 2007. By that time it had become clear that many Eastern European immigrants were living homeless in Great Britain. They would gather at 4 a.m. to read offers for undocumented work posted on a wall in Hammersmith, a site they called the "Wailing Wall."

"Many of them moved to England with no idea what they were doing, and had a rough landing," Sadowska says. Hammersmith was soon known as the slum of hard-luck immigrants. A member of the borough council came across Barka's website and sent out a call for help. The council hired the Polish social workers soon after.

To date, the organization has gotten 1,400 immigrants off the streets and back home. "The British weren't familiar with our form of social work at all," Sadowska says. London's social services, very much following the Anglo-Saxon model, offer homeless individuals nothing more than a place to sleep and something to eat, leaving it up to the homeless themselves to figure out how to get back on their feet.

Smura makes one last round of the empty streets and comes across three Romanians, who greet him with a slap on the back. They're returning home tomorrow, a trip Smura arranged. The men had spent weeks sleeping in abandoned buildings and searching in vain for work. Now, they'd rather go back to "Transylvania," as they say, than stay here and be swallowed up by the behemoth that is London.

Thus a particularly good day in the second incarnation of Janusz Smura's life draws to a close, with the rescue of three young men from a life on the streets, from violence, drugs and alcohol. Far too often, these stories don't have such a happy ending. "We're working here on the border between life and death," Smura says.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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